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Touches of brilliance

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Electronics makers take fingertip control to new heights with dazzling new products and bargain pricing

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The marine electronics world came to the Miami International Boat Show this year to showcase some truly game-changing technology and value pricing. And judging by the emphasis on new apps, one might think that industry players also had come together to pay collective homage to Apple.

There were more press conferences than usual, a strategic acquisition was announced, and a threat to GPS was in defeat. Miami, as Ed Sullivan used to say, was a “really big shew.”

The most Apple-like of the new products comes from Furuno. The Japanese manufacturer of rugged navigational devices has had fewer new-product releases in recent years than its competitors, but with the announcement of the NavNet TZtouch multifunction display, Furuno showed it is still a force for innovation. TZtouch is the first dual-touch MFD on the market, which means that not only is it tappable and swipeable, but it is also pinchable — just like an iPad.

For rough seas and general redundancy, TZtouch also can be controlled by a “Home” button and a combination rotary knob and push-to-select feature. Besides a power button, that’s it. Press Home and the menu carousel appears; rotate the carousel to select a mode, such as chart, radar, sounder, instruments or a combination of any two or three. Touch the screen to mark a point and options appear to the side. Touch “Go To” (or select it with the rotary knob) and you are navigating to a waypoint. Pinch or spread the screen to zoom in or out. Touch your boat with one finger and swipe with another to change the orientation from north-up to course-up.

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An entire article could be devoted to the elegant simplicity of navigating with this device, but one more feature is a must-mention. TZtouch doesn’t just mimic the iPad; it also will merge with one. Using Wi-Fi and, of course, an iOS app, a navigator can use an iPad to control the TZtouch, using the same view and the same touch controls. Whatever happens on the iPad happens on TZtouch.

The processing requirements and advanced features come at a cost, however, making TZtouch an exception to the aggressive pricing trend — $5,695 for the 9-inch model and $7,695 for the 14. Compare that with Raymarine’s e-Series HybridTouch 9- and 12-inch MFDs, also demonstrated at Miami, which cost $2,800 and $3,300, respectively. The difference is that these MFDs are single-touch devices, like the Navico NSS series and Garmin GPSMap series that preceded them.

Airmar’s coming-out party

These three single-touch MFD brands share a common asset that’s not yet available from Furuno, but is coming soon. It’s called CHIRP, and it’s the latest transducer technology from Airmar Technology, which happens to be murder on fish. CHIRP stands for compressed high-intensity radar pulse — military technology lately made affordable by Airmar engineers.

Instead of pulsing at a set 50 kHz or 200 kHz, the CHIRP transducer sweeps across a range of frequencies that can be adjusted depending on the species of fish being hunted. The return image is said to be five to 10 times more detailed than with traditional transducers. Tournament anglers are jubilant and say CHIRP has taken the guesswork out of the fishing equation.

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Airmar is the industry leader in sonar technology, but until now it had been content to remain in the background, basking in reflected glory from the fishfinder companies it supplies. Miami was Airmar’s coming-out party, with a booth and a full-blown press conference, during which Airmar’s top people touted the advantages of the next-generation CHIRP sounders.

Furuno says it held back releasing its own CHIRP sounder until it could test the Garmin, Raymarine and Navico versions, then develop a product superior to all of them. It will be released this summer.

Similar frequency-sweeping technology powers Navico’s Broadband Radar, which was a sensation when it was initially released three years ago. Instead of a magnetron, Broadband Radar employs “frequency modulated continuous wave” technology. In other words, instead of emitting a single pulse and listening for the echo, Navico’s device transmits across a range of frequencies while continually listening to and processing the returns. This year, Navico was selling what may well represent the maturation of this radar technology, exclusive to its Simrad, Lowrance and B&G brand MFDs.

Unlike traditional radar, Broadband had no “main bang” to clutter the center of the display, so it can show targets in fine detail only feet from the boat. Like the original, 4G also uses a third less power on “transmit” and emits less harmful radiation than a cell phone, but it now boasts a 36-mile range. Navico credits its beam-sharpening technology and claims the same performance from 4G’s 18-inch dome as conventional radar with a 3-1/2-foot open array. Retail price is about $2,000.

Garmin buys Interphase

Garmin also had a good show. A few days before, the GPS giant announced the acquisition of a California company called Interphase. Founded in 1986 by Charles Hicks, Interphase is the only U.S. manufacturer of forward-looking sonar for the recreational market — products based on patented “phased array, steerable beam” technology. These sonars are particularly good at detecting underwater pinnacles or objects such as submerged cargo containers in time for the helmsman to avoid collision.

What Garmin’s press release did not reveal is that Interphase is on the verge of a breakthrough in that technology — one that will greatly improve the quality of the on-screen imagery of what lies ahead of a boat. Hicks says he has developed a prototype that’s now being used on a submarine, and that a version for the recreational market may be ready sometime in 2013. Next-generation Interphase devices, he says, will provide underwater imagery approaching the quality of “structure” sonars by Navico and Humminbird but focused on what lies ahead, not what is on the sides of the boat.

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According to Garmin, Hicks will continue to run the Interphase division from its California offices. Products will continue to be offered under the Interphase name while Garmin engineers integrate forward-looking sonar into Garmin’s line of sensors and multifunction displays. Thus refined, this new combination will be marketed to both cruisers and anglers who want to find baitfish and analyze structure.

Garmin surely relishes the fall of LightSquared and its 4G terrestrial and satellite communications network, which Garmin says threatened to interfere with GPS “on land, at sea and in the air.” By the time of the Miami show, the hedge-fund endeavor was on the verge of collapse, thanks to Washington lobbying efforts by Garmin, Trimble Navigation and others in the GPS community, which had organized a “Save Our GPS” movement. BoatUS was on board, too, and last summer it delivered 18,000 comments from its members opposing LightSquared.

Ultimately the Pentagon and the Federal Aviation Administration joined the opposition. Government tests had shown that “no practical solutions or mitigations … would permit the LightSquared broadband service, as proposed, to operate in the next few months or years without significantly interfering with GPS.”

Garmin had two product announcements at the show, too. One was a series of thermal night vision cameras that “slew to cue” or track moving targets, such as AIS vessels, or hot spots, such as a person in the water.

The other was a new iOS app that turns iPhones and iPads into chart plotters, using Garmin BlueChart cartography and ActiveCaptain’s online cruising guide. ActiveCaptain is a Web-based community of boaters who provide real-time intelligence about the waterways in the United States and abroad, including marina reviews and local knowledge about anchorages and hazards. With BlueChart Mobile, boaters can use ActiveCaptain to contribute information based on their own experiences on the water. The app is free, and downloadable charts are priced by region.

ActiveCaptain co-creator and owner Jeffrey Siegel was at the Garmin booth to underscore the new relationship, which is similar to arrangements he has with navigational software companies such as Rose Point, MaxSea and Nobeltec.

Navionics’ brave new world

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Terms for what ActiveCaptain does include “crowd-sourcing” and “user-generated content,” or UGC. The Navionics cartography company is developing its own UGC capability, and it announced a major initiative at the show. Until then, the Navionics UGC model was built on its smart phone apps. Navionics enabled boaters to mark hazards and changes in navigation aids, then harvested these notations and automatically shared them with all customers. A Navionics app user, for example, could change the position of a mischarted rock, and soon that change would appear on the UGC layer for everyone with Navionics on an iOS or Android device.

Navionics’ big announcement at the show was that it will be expanding UGC to chart plotters that use Navionics cartography — its core business — under the rubric of an initiative called Freshest Data, which downloads daily chart updates into MFDs either via Wi-Fi or PC and storage card. Begun late last year, the plan includes edits to cartography, new data sets, corrections, Notices to Mariners and now UGC.

Navionics also announced a plan to begin harvesting user-generated, location-tagged soundings and downloading them to everyone’s UGC layer — the Holy Grail of crowd-sourced navigation. In other words, Navionics boaters will be able to record depths during passages, and those depth numbers and their precise locations can be downloaded to chart plotters enabled for Freshest Data. With much of the survey data for government charts more than 50 years old, the results might prove valuable in sections of the waterways where bottom profiles have changed.

NOAA says it would take 166 years at its current work pace to survey and correct the known errors in its charts. Navionics says users have accounted for more than 200,000 UGC “edits” during the past year. That represents a weekly average greater than the number of corrections that NOAA or the British Admiralty can do in a year.

Life-saving advances

Two other innovations should have a positive effect on boater safety, one in the realm of search and rescue and the other for man-overboard recovery. The Kannad SafeLink R10 SRS is the first AIS “survivor recovery system” on the market, and West Marine vice president of product development Chuck Hawley has praised it as the “best possible solution for a man overboard.”

Worn on a life jacket, the SafeLink R10 is activated by sliding off the safety tab and lifting an arming cap to deploy the antenna. The compact, lightweight unit sends alert messages, GPS position and an identifying code to AIS receivers within a 4-mile radius — radio range at sea level. When AIS receivers on nearby boats get the message, they sound an alarm and place the casualty icon — a boxed cross — on any integrated chart plotter. This location can then be activated as a waypoint to the lost crew. Kannad says the R10 will continue to broadcast for 24 hours. It retails for $349, but you can expect better pricing for AIS beacons as competitors emerge later this year and next.

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As many as nine in 10 VHF radios aren’t connected to GPS. Consequently those radios cannot send a distress signal to the Coast Guard with the boat’s position using the red panic button feature. The boating majority seems to have been reluctant to connect wires or hire technicians to do it, and rescue authorities consider this a big gap in the Coast Guard’s new $1.2 billion Rescue 21 system.

Standard Horizon, with its new Explorer GX1700 GPS radio, which sells for $230, is the first radio company to overcome those hurdles. Standard Horizon’s engineers used filters to eliminate the interference and installed a sensitive 12-channel GPS into the front panel of the radio so it can acquire satellite signals even when flush-mounted down below. ICOM, the other big radio manufacturer, is expected to follow suit. Despite prodding by the Coast Guard, radio manufacturers had been unwilling to incorporate a GPS receiver within a fixed-mount radio because of potential interference between GPS and VHF signals and worries that the GPS would not be reliable on radios mounted below.

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue.

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